I stood alone in the pre-dawn of the morning and the silence of the surrounding forest was punctuated only by the hooting of owls and the snoring of AQT players as they serenaded the coming sun. I was taking my turn on watch and the firebase was so dark that I couldn’t really see my way to walk around the inside of the perimeter. It was a large base by airsoft standards, about 70 meters long and 20 wide, with several small wooden buildings, huts and fire positions all surrounded by steel barrels acting as the wall between the players and the trees beyond. Every few steps I raised the NVG scope to my left eye and took a look into the gloomy and misty darkness. Through the NVG there were only dark shapes with blurry outlines, suggestive of men among the trees, but these didn’t move so I took them to be bushes. Nevertheless, I gripped my rifle tightly in my right hand.
I again cursed the idea that I was the only sentry.
My team leader, Trip, had listened to our single-sentry concerns and then laid out what we were going to do, “Well,” he began, “we can leave, but if we do the AQT will turn on us. Or we can stay. The opposition will probably attack in the early morning, so I will make sure that we have the last sentry watches. I will go first. Basho, you will take the last watch.”
I didn’t sleep very well as what if the enemy sent in a silent unit to take out the sentry? We wouldn’t know we were under attack until we were all murdered in our sleeping bags! Consequently I kept my boots and fighting rig on when in my sleeping bag, with a drawn pistol next to my leg. I was determined not to be captured without a fight.
Four hours later it was my turn and here I stood, alone in the darkness, straining my ears to hear any noises and feeling the tension in the air. I was on the last watch, so I knew they would be coming any moment. I leaned over a barrel to get a better look at a suspicious tree and then, satisfied, turned away to walk on. Suddenly, there was the unmistakable crack of a stick being stood on – someone was right behind me! My heart beat in my ears as I flicked the selector switch on my M4 to full auto. I thought to myself: I must be fast and smooth, I must get off a burst in an arc to be sure of a hit then I have to shout the alert to the sleeping base. As my eyes strained to my left I suddenly saw a flash of unmistakable movement in my peripheral vision. He was coming low and left for a knife kill! I planted my foot forwards and span, pulling the trigger as I turned. The AEG motor kicked into life and started spitting high-speed BBs. I was sure that I was going to get at best a 50/50. My arm strained to draw the arc of fire as fast as possible and the opposition shape started to resolve, raising itself up in alarm of its own. The white BBs flew through the air between us and rattled into the –
– into the deer!
I released the trigger, but it was too late and the deer took a scything burst across the haunches. It brayed in fear, reared-up its legs high in the air and then bounded off into the night. Gone. Just as suddenly as it began it was over and I was alone again with only the sound of my heart pumping in my ears and my face flush with cold embarrassment.
A whispered voice came from one of the huts, “What was that? Is it a stand to?”
I pushed the selector to safe. “No mate, false alarm”.
“Right,” the voice said, tired, and went away.
I walked on, continuing my vigil. I knew that they were out there – probably laughing.
Operation Snakebite was the first game designed by Tier 1 Military Simulations; the ex-Royal Marine Commando run company specialising in “high end” milsim. The action was spread over 2 days at the sites of Dorking and Epsom run by Elite Action Games. The level of detail and effort that had gone into creating a believable roleplay environment was really impressive. For example, a couple of days before the event, I had been emailed a 26 page long PowerPoint briefing customised for my team. It included maps of the area, intelligence reports, “intercepted” communications and our orders.
I remember thinking that if the event was run with anywhere near the same level of passion that went into creating this document then I was in for a wild ride.
I was playing for a small team of Pakistani CIA types called the ISI.
Our mission was complicated and woven into the fabric of the storyline Tier 1 had designed for the event. It seemed that we had placed a spy in the AQT forces to keep an eye on them. This man was suspected to wanting to defect to the UK forces moving into the area. It was our job to monitor this defection. We could do it almost any way we wanted. The easiest way was to go under cover as AQT and watch him, but we could have similarly gone under cover with the UK forces or even struck out on our own. Once we chose, the die was cast and any action against the sheltering side would lead to conflict.
We drove down to Dorking at about 5pm and setup our gear. I had a lot of camera equipment to strap to myself, but we had lots of time. The briefings for the AQT team were at 2am in the morning.
By then I was already really tired after a week commuting into London, and so afterwards we grabbed a little sleep before the AQT hiked the 40 minutes into the game zone at 5am.
The thing that struck me immediately was that the players who had attended the Tier 1 training days had quite an advantage in the field. It showed in the way they moved, communicated and took cover as well in how they laid up a harbour position. My little four man team were all eyeing the bushes with great care.
Would the enemy attack us openly? I was expecting so. However, I was to find that the enemy had other orders and would only engage and fade. The large open-grass battles I had expected were replaced by much more realistic Special Forces type incursions. The resulting feeling that “eyes were always on us” (which they were) was palpable among the team.
This tension is the core part of milsim as there was the possibility of contact at any moment.
For me this sent my, already tired from London commuting, body into sleep mode. Whenever I found an hour to rest I laid back and slept. However, I always kept my pistol cocked and locked on my chest ready to leap into action at the shout of a stand to. Trip filmed me snoring away and Keith commented that if we did get attacked they could just stand me up as I was in combat position already. To see my reaction, Trip did indeed shout “Stand to!” and was happily laughing to see that I immediately sprung to my feet, pistol at the ready, and calling for targets.
About half-way through the day a patrol returned with a hostage and the next phase of the roleplay kicked in. I wasn’t sure if the guy had “volunteered” to be captured, but he played the hostage stoically as he was put into stress positions and (mock) tortured. Personally speaking this was a part of the event I was not too interested in and I stayed well away from the fellow and his tormentors. The prospect of being captured filled me with dread and such a possibility only added to the “realism” of the event, which meant that our patrols were even more nervous than before.
Then our “agent” finally attempted to sneak out of the base and Trip gave the nod to our four man unit to follow him. As we ventured out into the treeline, and out of sight of the base, the danger we were putting ourselves in hit home.
If there is one thing that this event managed to convey to me about “real” soldiering then it was the slice of fear I felt being out so unmanned, which was probably only a tiny percentage of how our troops must feel at times like this. How much courage they must display to prevail despite this feeling amazes me. We tracked the Agent through the trees and up a large bank. I was sure that he had spotted us and even more so that we were being led into a trap. Eventually the Agent disappeared into some scrub and we followed him to only land straight on top of him. His attempts to lose us had failed! I wanted to cap him there and then, but Trip instead gave him a talking-to and we all led back to the firebase.
I hadn’t fired a shot in that patrol, but it doesn’t go unnoticed that it was one of the most fun things I have ever done in airsoft.
An hour after we got back, the news went around that a prisoner exchange was on the cards. The brief was that we would only take 3 men to an agreed area and swap our guy for theirs. The AQT commander led a group out into the forest and we tracked through in lines using a large arc to ensure we had no surprises. Eventually we came across the small village where the exchange was to take place and setup an all-around defence.
The opposition approached, but the AQT commander didn’t like the look of it and ordered an assault. I am pleased to report that this was absolutely text-book. The opposition was caught flat-footed and went down hard with the AQT pushing forwards, killing the guards, fighting off the response and retreating in good order right back to where I was standing (I guarded the prisoner). It was a stunning performance.
Flush with our victory, we executed their prisoner (allowing him to bleed out and respawn) and went back to the firebase in great spirits. It was dinner time.
My dinner – a self-heating MRE – prompted the need for the toilet. I dug into my pack for my wetwipes and toilet roll and headed out of the base to find a suitable tree. I was very aware that I was alone, something that Stewart from Tier 1 had cautioned against in the training, so I took my pistol belt and a grenade. I picked my way over a little swampy stream and selected a suitable tree overlooking a ditch. I put my belt across my shoulders and started undoing my trousers as this was going to be as quick as I could make it. I came up to the tree and looked over the roots into the ditch. To my shock and horror, sitting in the ditch – their eyes wide with fear that I was about to poo on them – were three opposition players! I jumped back and their first shot went over my head. I scrambled to my feet and ran, but my boots slipped on the muddy ground and I slid onto my side. The grenade! I fumbled in my pocket and dug out the grenade, but it wouldn’t light and I was desperately scratching the striker when a BB thumped into my chest.
“Medic!” I shouted.
Immediately the base came to life with shouts of alarm and orders being flung around. A large group of the AQT thundered out of the base and down the bank towards our tableau. The opposition took one look at the numbers and fled up the hillside pursued by the AQT commander. So, that’s how the Taliban saved me from literally having my shit pushed back in!
I held that toilet until the end of the game.
As the evening drew in my unit went out and planted 10 pressure sensitive mines to the north of the base. My teammates were sure that these would help in the coming night, because clearly the opposition were building up to a strike against the base itself.
Many hours later…
The horror of my near capture and embarrassment at having shot up a harmless woodland creature was still on my mind as I trudged around the base on watch. The sun was finally starting to make an appearance and I was able to put the NVG away as it offered no improvement on my eyesight. When to the north of the base I suddenly heard the absolute unmistakable sound of approaching forces.
They were crunching the trees underfoot, but rather than giving themselves away it was only reinforcing the rising excitement and adrenaline flooding into my body and I came instantly awake.
The moment I sounded those words the opposition went loud and started firing at the base. I could clearly hear their commander (Tier 1’s Ed Denson) shouting orders to the sections and then all hell broke loose. My ISI unit mates (ready in moments) and I formed up and fought back, but the opposition rate of fire was immense. I wondered why there were so few defenders until I looked around and could see the AQT team running away (which I later discovered was their orders). Stoically my ISI brothers and I fought on like only the DAs can. Once the perimeter fire came too much the surviving members retreated into the hut and I posted Keith upstairs to fire down on the cover now taken by the opposition. I took a look out of a window and the opposition’s day spent hiding in ditches and setting up on the AQT was paying off as they were moving very well in the low light and obviously had this planned. Five men took cover in front of the hut and I threw a grenade to their side and then retreated further into the hut. I drew my pistol and took out the first three units who tried to dynamically enter on me and I am pleased to report that they all took it. The next guy to come in however was more used to CQB and I got taken out on a 50/50. All the tension left my body and we shared a gentlemen’s handshake. Fair play!
I later found out that AQT retreat was all part of the roleplay plan for the day and setup the next part of the event at Epsom Tunnels. The idea was that the AQT had retreated into their underground base and the opposition had to weed them out with a frontal assault. We quickly relocated. Epsom tunnels are huge, almost beyond belief, and exceedingly dark.
They are perfect for a CQB skirmish, but not perhaps best suited for milsim without marshals. What happened was that as soon as grenades went off the whole environment became completely smoked out. After and hour or so of some very hard fighting, and having lost the ability to see, the ISI called it a day.
If I was to critique the game I would always try to stay away from simply nit-picking. I have had a hand in running airsoft events and I know how it is impossible for everything to go perfectly to plan. I think that Tier 1 should be highly congratulated in what they have achieved with this format and I can’t fault their dedication, intelligence and resolve.
What issues I saw were really to do with milsim more than T1.
The main thing I would counsel someone to consider when thinking of coming to a milsim event like this for the first time is the slight lack of open endedness. What I mean is: there is a story that we are playing through and certain people have orders. For example, if I had been given total freedom then I would have attacked the opposition in the night, rather than have them attack us as they would not have expected it. I love doing what the opposition don’t expect. Here that freedom is slightly constrained and stepping totally outside of the chain of command will only get you sent off. This is, of course, not something “wrong” with milsim, just different and in fact far more realistic to “real” soldiering. Frankly, in an event run this well you hardly notice it at all and that is the best compliment I can give T1 for Operation Snakebite; it was as slick as snake shit. I had real moments of fear and heart pumping excitement and yet mostly without firing a single shot.
I loved the event and I will be back for more!
Basho and the DAs went to the Tier 1 Military Simulations’ Operation Snakebite at Elite Action Games in Dorking & Epsom
Basho (the author) has been playing airsoft for 10 years. He is a committee member of Team Delta Alpha (the DAs) and was the senior marshal at their (now closed) home site of Electrowerkz in London. Basho is now the senior marshal for Tier 1 Military Simulations.
The film of this adventure is here: